acting technique

How These 6 Actors Prepared for a Role

Preparation is as much of an actor’s job as a performance itself, particularly when a character’s physicality, speech, or persona are vastly different from your own. Whether an actor’s challenge is primarily physical, mental, emotional, or even vocal, truly embodying a character’s traits in all their nuance produces the most memorable and admirable performances (not to mention benefits come Award season!).

Consequently, great transformations require great dedication, with some actors taking it upon themselves to go to famous extremes to prepare for their roles. Here are some of the most noteworthy examples:

Ben Platt – Dear Evan Hansen

The Tony-winning lead actor of Dear Evan Hansen delivers a gut-wrenching performance, displaying an incredible amount of anguish through the anxiety-ridden teenager, Evan, eight times a week. This kind of repetitive emotional and physical exertion can prove exhausting for the best of us, and among the many differences between acting for camera and acting on stage is the exaggerated movement and vocal projection required for stage actors.

In this New York Times article, Platt talks of the “monkish existence” he has in order to prepare for each show. In addition to losing 30 pounds for the role, Platt gives precedence to solitude and silence in order to rest and recover, notoriously turning down every opportunity for social gatherings. He also refrains from gluten and dairy, takes supplements, and attends physical therapy sessions twice a week that regularly involves the practice of cupping. Much to his chagrin, he’s also developed a habit of nail-biting and obsessively cracking his knuckles — habits he picked up from his character, Evan.  

Charlize Theron – Monster

A former model, Theron had become typecast as the “sexy blonde” before landing the 2003 role of real-life-prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos.

The statuesque actress famously transformed her physical appearance to such an extent that audiences found her unrecognizable; she gained 30 pounds; dyed and thinned her hair; partially shaved and bleached her eyebrows; layered tattoo ink on her face for the weathered pallor of Wuornos’ skin; and donned unflattering dentures and contact lenses.

Theron devoted five whole months to researching Wuornos’ life in order to truly become her, resulting in a win for the Best Actress category at the Oscars (there’s a theme here). Fifteen years on, Theron continues to make drastic physical transformations, recently gaining 50 pounds for her role as Marlo, the overwhelmed mother of three in Tully. Admittedly, Theron says she struggles a lot more to shed the weight at 42 than she did at 27.

Jamie Foxx – Ray

Foxx went from Booty Call to winning an Oscar for his portrayal of the legendary blind musician, Ray Charles. To transform into the iconic musician, Foxx shed 30 pounds through a weeklong fast, followed by a painfully strict diet and daily workouts — though in this New York Times article, Foxx said that the weight loss was the easy part.

In addition to eyelid prosthetics and sunglasses modelled on Charles, Foxx had his eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day, calling it “a jail sentence.” He also suffered panic attacks for the first two weeks, and crew members would sometimes forget and leave him behind at restaurants or around the set.

Leonardo Dicaprio – The Revenant

The seasoned actor was nominated for an Oscar six times before winning his first in 2016 for his portrayal of Hugh Glass in The Revenant — and rightfully so. Shooting on location for nine months in Canada and Argentina in freezing wilderness was “a living hell” for cast and crew members alike. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki were intent on creating the most realistic aesthetic for the film, using minimal CGI and only shooting with natural daylight.

As such, an incredible amount of rehearsal went into schedule, to maximize the one hour of optimal light they had per day whilst subjecting DiCaprio to “agonizing” feats against mother nature.

In an interview with Yahoo, DiCaprio refers to some 30-40 sequences involving going in and out of freezing rivers, sleeping in an animal carcass, and, of course, that bear scene, as “some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.”

Although the horse carcass was a prop and the bear a product of CGI, eating a raw bison liver was 100 percent real. The vegetarian actor volunteered to make the edible sacrifice to serve Iñárritu’s immersive vision, concerned the faux liver provided wasn’t authentic enough.

“When you see the movie, you’ll see my reaction to it,” he says. “It says it all. It was an instinctive reaction.”

Jared Leto – Suicide Squad

No list about method acting and extreme transformations is complete without including the controversial antics of Jared Leto. Known for his over-the-top commitment to roles, the naturally slender actor seems to be constantly starving or gorging, having lost 25 pounds for Requiem for a Dream, gained 67 pounds for Chapter 27, and most recently lost 40 pounds for his 2013 Oscar-winning role as Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman in Dallas Buyers Club.

Besides his physical appearance, however, Leto truly immerses himself in his characters by never breaking off-camera. His Suicide Squad co-star Will Smith famously said, “I’ve never actually met Jared Leto. We worked together for six months and I’ve only ever spoken to him as The Joker.”

Leto also sent Smith bullets with a love letter — similar to what fellow castmate Margot Robbie received, only instead of bullets, there was a live rat. All Suicide Squad castmates received dubious gifts from “The Joker,” and these details served to renew a public debate about the nature of authentic method acting and its value in contemporary film.

Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry

In 1999, Swank played a groundbreaking role of a real-life transgender youth who was born female but lived as a male, until he was killed in 1993 for that reason. The tragic true story prompted Swank to commit everything she had to the role. She took on the persona of Hilary Swank’s brother, James, for four weeks prior to shooting. Roaming around Santa Monica in disguise, with stuffed her pants, flattened breasts, and a lowered voice, the actress said she was treated differently in public and felt like she lost every ounce of her femininity.

She told EW, “It put me in a state of real hopelessness. I cried a lot for days.” The tears didn’t last long though: she won the Best Actress Oscar that year for her work.

What are your favorite stories of famous actor preparation? Let us know in the comments below! Learn more about Acting for Film at the New York Film Academy.

Developing Your Core Acting Technique

If you’re thinking about becoming an actor, there are some basic things like your type, age range, and preferred medium (stage or film, or both) to which you’ve likely given some thought. But have you considered your acting technique?

Actors can train in several techniques developed by master acting instructors, including those based on the work of Constantin Stanislavski, who inspired Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Michael Chekhov, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg.  Strasberg’s technique is commonly known as “The Method” and looks at a deep investigation of characters’ emotional lives to intensify the connection between actor and character. Using information gathered from the script, the life of the character is made multi-dimensional through investigating the actor’s own imagination and developing a fuller sense of humanity via techniques such as a detailed and rich back story that provides the actor with a deep connection to character that integrates the writer’s intentions.

And how does one do that, you ask? While no actor is the same, we’ve got you covered with four tips to help you get started on developing your own acting technique.

1. Relaxation

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Relaxation or the release of muscular tension is a key skill in any technique. Muscles tense in order to block emotion and the anxious actor is often so full of that one emotion that they are incapable of feeling any others. Removing thoughts and tension that block emotional range and limit the actor’s imagination is an imperative. If you’re just starting out, find a quiet area and lie down with your arms at your side and your palms facing upward. Take several long deep breaths, preferably on a five count in and a five count out. With each inhale, imagine you are breathing in pure energy. With each exhale, allow all toxicity and negative thoughts to flow away from and out of your body. Allow your muscles to release and become pliant and available. Set a timer and do this for five minutes, beginning with breath and visualizing release and repeating the then slowly revive yourself by wiggling fingers and toes before you slowly sit up.

While there are a number of relaxation and breathing exercises, like these published on our blog, the trick is finding one or a few that work well for you, and then practice, practice, practice! This kind of training can seem very slow at first, and you may even fall asleep the first few times, but hang in there! This is the foundation of your technique. Many actors train with relaxation and breathing exercises that can be found in Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares.”

2. Sense Memory

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Sense memory is an exercise to help actors recall objects, places, or things and allow the senses to react. For example, if someone were to ask you to recall the scent of a lemon, could you re-create in this moment the sensations you originally experienced? The first step in doing this would be to take a real lemon and sit with it. Explore in in your hands, with your fingertips. Bring it up to your nose. Memorize how it feels in your hands, and the scent of it as you bring it closer to your nose. Once you’ve explored this object with your senses – touch, sight, sound and taste (if necessary) — take it away! Now that it’s gone, try to recreate your sensory experience of this object. Recall the scent, the taste, the touch of it on your fingertips — your palms. The more you practice doing this, the easier it becomes!

3. Personal Object

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Let’s say you’ve been cast to play a corrections officer. Through the information provided in the script, you know your character clocks in at work Monday through Friday from nine in the morning to five in the evening. That’s a good chunk of the day that your character in on the job. Would he or she be carrying a ring of keys on their belt buckle? Perhaps you could experiment with the sensation of wearing a heavy key ring all day. Does it affect how you walk? Do you immediately reach for them when facing a door? Do you ever mistakenly reach for them in your personal life at home?

On the other hand, what if you are playing a character who just lost their mother? Perhaps your own mother gave you a bracelet when you were young and that object holds a key to certain memories of her. Can you imagine losing your own mother, and wearing that bracelet every day in remembrance of her? Use this exercise to brainstorm ways in which an object stirs emotions.  What if you saw the bracelet every time you wash your hands? Could your character also have an object their mother gave to them that elicits feelings? In this way, using an object of personal significance is helpful in developing a template to investigate the inner life of a character.  

4. Music/Sound

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Music is another very effective tool that can be used to ground a character’s inner life. If you think about a time where you were excited and very optimistic about something — a first date, a graduation, the birth of a child — you may associate those events with a particular song. And if you don’t, you can find one that calls those feelings to mind. Now, let’s say you are playing a character who just got hired for her dream job. This calls for feelings of excitement, hope, and wonder at what’s to come. It’s also a time of transition. Can you find a song that inspires the emotions you need to ground the reality of this character’s experience?

There are plenty of songs in many genres, so feel free to go outside of your comfort zone. Music has a way of calling to mind different events in our lives, the people who were there, and the feelings we experienced in those moments. You may even be triggered by simple sounds. The sound of footsteps or a door opening and closing, and the jangle of keys can bring on a sense of anticipation, or excitement, or fear. Meditating to sound or recreating it in your mind while developing the backstory of your character can help you get into a role faster, and with more ease.

While these tips are not conclusive in preparing one’s own technique, they can certainly be used as an introduction while you are honing your craft. Remember, this is training! Taking on a character is like running a marathon, and like any runner will tell you, it takes the right training to succeed.

What are some of the exercises you practice to help develop your method acting technique? Let us know in the comments.

Is Method Acting Truly Over? Jared Leto’s Joker

Make no mistake about it: the technique known as method acting has played a huge part in the history and evolution of the acting profession, and there are many venerated method actors still producing exceptional works today.

But does method acting have a place in the future of the industry?

That’s the question raised in a recent Atlantic op-ed entitled “Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting.” It’s a bold claim, and one that is worthy of unpacking.

But first, what is method acting?

NYFA New York’s acting program chair Glynis Rigsby feels it’s important to recognize that this, in itself, is an important question: “’Method acting’ is typically aligned with the work of Lee Strasberg as separate and distinct from the many phases of Stanislavski’s work, Michael Chekhov, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler and others. (Stanislavski had a system, Strasberg had a method).”

What made Strasberg and “the Method” distinct among  American acting techniques was an emphasis on intensely experiential, personal work — that can be gruelling physically and emotionally. This is usually what American audiences associate with “the Method,” in contrast to Russian innovator Stanislavski’s system, which also emphasized the actor’s use of imagination to portray their roles.

Why So Serious?

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The Atlantic uses the oversaturated news about Jared Leto’s method acting during his turn as The Joker in “Suicide Squad” as a springboard for discussion, pointing towards how tales of his antics during production — sending cast members used condoms, forcing the crew to call him “Mr. J”, and marathon-watching tapes of real violence — has bombarded media reporting about the film.

And while the accuracy of these stories has been called into question, there’s no doubt whatsoever that they have generated more column inches than is warranted or necessary. As an unimpressed Esquire writer put it: “Can Jared Leto shut up about his method acting in ‘Suicide Squad?’ We get it.”

That was written long before the movie even came out. There have been even more press interviews since where the topic has been crowbarred in, to the point where it’s rare to see Leto’s name printed as anything less than “Method Actor Jared Leto.”

Alongside the fact that this is an annoyingly (and increasingly) popular marketing trick and arguably little else, the wider charge here is that it creates the illusion that there is no such thing as good acting without suffering.

As Angelica Bastién notes in her Atlantic piece, a huge deal is made of the extremes of method acting (think DiCaprio’s tribulations during “The Revenant”). The issue here is that this sometimes happens to the exclusion of all else during the marketing — and critical examination — of a film.

Blood, Sweat and Weight Loss

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The main problem with this phenomenon is that when a high-profile actor claims to be a “method actor,” this is meant to signal to the media that they have accomplished “a performance worth paying attention to.” And that doesn’t necessarily follow.

That’s not to say that Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t a fine actor (because he is), but many industry insiders and actors feel that the Academy shouldn’t base their awards decisions on who lost the most weight for a role that year — or who slept in how many dead animal carcasses during production.

Bastién also makes a compelling case in her article for the gender disservice perpetrated here, too; when you think media talks of “strong” method performances, it’s nearly always males that come up — and acting “manly” in some physical way.

This overshadows exceptional performances by many female method acting giants (think: Melissa Leo in “The Fighter,” Jessica Lange, Ellen Burstyn), and raises the question whether a casting director, producer, or audience would have as much patience with a female lead pulling shenanigans in the name of “method acting” like Leto. Female method actors are arguably often ignored.

But all of this, of course, sidesteps the question of whether method acting in reality is the same as method acting in the media — and whether drawing attention to an actor’s preparation should matter when it comes to experiencing their performance.

Stanislavski’s Tool Box

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We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: method acting is not a magic bullet that will instantly makeyou a better actor. It’s a tool to be used with specificity, purpose, and discipline.

Constantin Stanislavski is seen as the father of modern acting, but his pioneering advances in the craft are often glossed over and he gets referred to simply as “the guy who invented method acting.” As we learned above, this is a misconception: Stanislavski’s innovations later inspired Lee Strasberg to create the robust and demanding style we think of as method acting.

Stanislavski himself was keen to urge students to find their own paths rather than rigidly follow his example, and had many more ideas to offer to an actor looking to expand his or her toolbox.

So Is Method Acting Over?

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No. At least, not in the sense it’s the last we’ll hear of it in the media. And we hope that conscientious actors will continue to carefully apply their method skills in safe and smart performance choices. Method acting still has a place in the profession, as long as the story is put first and the spectacle of a performance (or related hype) remains secondary. Ultimately, it’s the performance — and not necessarily the actor’s way of working — that audiences remember.

If method acting is a discipline that works for you, it may be prudent to take a leaf out of Daniel Day-Lewis’ book: do the work and let your performances speak for you.